Noticias en ‘Catalonia’

March 25th, 2009


It’s the first weekend of spring and, paradoxically, the last calçotada of the winter!

Eating calçots is unique to Catalonia, in fact it’s even more specific, belonging to the Camp de Tarragona. Although the ‘capital’ of the calçotada is the small town of Valls, which even has a D.O. (Denominació d’origen) for calçots, the trend, or craze perhaps, for eating them has spread far and wide – I’ve even heard of them on flash restaurant menus in Madrid! But to fer calçotada one really has to be in the country, specifically a farm or garden where all the necessary materials are on hand: a big fire pit, firewood and kindling, chairs, tables and above all – no need to worry about the mess!

I’ve given details of the process on the Iberianature web page so here I’ll just let the pictures speak for themselves! The Catalans are noted for their sense of ‘seny‘, a sort of canny sensibility, but the reverse is ‘rauxa‘, a word that’s impossible to translate succinctly but which has overtones of riot, raucous and just plain rowdy! Food obsessions such as hunting wild mushrooms or vast trays of snails baked over an open fire are examples of rauxa, but the calçotada has perhaps the most rauxa of all!

Careful attention to detail is all important, of course; good seny ensures that there are plenty of willing hands available to do the ‘man’s’ work!

As always more ‘volunteers’ turn up when all is up and running!

Meanwhile the party gets under way . . .

While yet more go onto the blaze, each batch of calçots is wapped up to keep warm – just like fish and chips!

A slight ‘technical hitch’ causes a brief moment of concern . . .

. . . but all’s well . . .

. . . that ends well . . .

. . .until the second course is ready!

Followed by dessert, coffee and refined parlour games for the ‘children’!

Until it’s time to wave goodbye – and to wash your hands!

There’s a bitter-sweet irony about this calçotada – as the masia is slowly being swallowed up by the city’s inexorable growth. But the integration of urban and rural life is very much a Catalan specialism – with thier long history of migration to centres such as Barcelona, Catalans have learnt to keep thier roots alive by living the culture. Although a calçotada doesn’t quite come off outside of a bucolic location, it’s more about a way of seeing things than the actual event, participation and friendship are at the heart of such festes!

You can always spot an otter . . .

There could hardly seem a less promising place to go naturalising than the stretch of the Noguera Pallaresa just downstream from Tremp, ‘capital’ of the Pallars Jussà comarca in the Catalan pre-Pyrenees. The river here passes through a wide flood plain and is flanked with large banks of shaley gravel; in fact the numerous irrigated fields that take advantage of the level ground are interspersed with several gravel pits. The river itself is contained within large levees that run in a dead straight line for several miles. But in its wisdom the Ajuntament, or town hall, has developed the west bank with leisure facilities and a nature trail; as well as equipment for circuit training of the sit-up, press-up variety (which I studiously ignore!) and the track itself has been prepared for walkers and runners, complete with kilometre posts and some very welcome benches, with notices pointing out the flora and fauna – plus strict instructions about not damaging them!

The river itself has a life of its own, however, as in recent years the water authorities have guaranteed a constant flow of running water, rather than siphoning the whole lot off upstream for irrigation as happened in the past, and this has led to the development of lots of habitat between the drearily imposing levees. Islets have formed amid the reed beds and there are stretches of rapids where the course narrows between them. In other places these islets have grown large enough to support trees and there are torpid backwaters oozing with waterweed. These islets are a small miracle as they have to be stable enough to face some serious flooding when the massive San Antoni reservoir just upstream has to ‘let go’. But on closer examination there was something even more interesting!

The facility is surprisingly popular and we find ourselves using it a lot, especially recently during that no-man’s-land time between going to the builders’ merchant before it is inundated with chaps in little white vans, and five-thirty when the proper shops open. This was the first time in weeks that this lowest part of the Conca de Tremp wasn’t still swathed in freezing fog even at that time, and there were plenty of people taking the opportunity for a paseo. That, coupled with the fact that we were, as always, accompanied by our two lupine husky dogs would preclude any great interest in the wildlife but there it was; an beautiful otter in a fishing frenzy just about ten metres away!

It must have been a combination of the noisily rushing water, the animal’s obsession with the task in hand and the fact that we were downwind, but we were able to watch it for well over five minutes (the camera timed this, a handy tool!), moving around to get better camera angles, even flagging down a jogger to look (he stayed in iPodland, however, so maybe this was a more common sight than we’d imagined!) and generally doing the kinds of thing David Attenborough would shudder at! Otter caught at least five fish during this time, appearing to steady itself against a boulder whilst lining up the fish, each about 4-6 oz I would guess, to be swallowed in one gulp.

The last time, almost the only time in fact, I’d seen an otter was in Jerez Zoo, of all places, in the company of the denizens of the Iberianaure Forum which held a ‘summit’ nearby in April last year. As the ‘experts’ carried on their tour of the rare and exotic species I remained at the otter enclosure, struck by its repetitive behaviour, swimming up and down, up and down, in a manner that reminded me of inmates in an institution. But as time went on I realized that the otter was playing a game, swimming upside down at times and turning against the banks of its little pool in numerous different ways, making a seemingly endless variation. Was it romantic of me, or worse still anthropomorphic, to be reminded of Ken Kesey, Henri Charrière or even Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn! In fact ‘our’ otter did very much the same, swimming dexterously between the boulders using numerous different twists and turns. With its head under the water searching for prey its powerful shoulders made a striking bow wave that reminded me, unpleasantly, of that of a nuclear submarine, whose ‘bows’ are underwater several yards ahead of the visible portion.

Leaving those unpleasant reflections we walked back into town as the dusk settled, glad to be back in the human world of street lighting, the babble, not of flowing water but flowing conversation, and more fish, this time neatly arrayed on the peixeteria’s white marble slab!

Postscript: despite the problems I subsequetly had with the camera, it’s obvious that having it to hand generated some memorable, if completely amateur, images. However I feel the more important aspect of our brief encounter was in its unexpected, spontaneous nature. I developed this theme elsewhere last year in the Iberianature Forum following a similarly sighting of a fox. Unencumbered with gadgets our little party, incuding a professional ‘media’ person, were simply spellbound by the close proximity of a wild animal in its own domain. This time the impression was heightened, perhaps, due to the unprepossessing location and inauspicious circumstances!

Autumn along the Noguera Pallaresa

It’s only a few weeks ago now but with the recent wintry weather makes it seem as if autumn has passed us by. Mid October gave us what was probably the most perfect weeks to explore the upper limits of the River Noguera Pallaresa, high in the Pyrenees upstream of the town of Esterri d’Aneau –the last township on the southern side of the central cordillera.

The main road heads northwest in its quest for the Port de Bonaigüa and the Val d’Aran that lies beyond. But we headed due north, seeking the source of the river before it was cut off until spring. The valley of the Noguera seems to dive between towering slopes on either side, passing the tiny villages of Borén and Isil (above) before petering out altogether at Alos d’Isil. Beyond the Refugi de Fornet the track gets too rough for our car and besides the huskies are by now getting decidedly fractious.

The proximity of dense forest mean that we are all trussed up together – once huskies get loose in the range there’s little chance of them heeding our calls. So we spend time dawdling among the water meadows, exploring the ruined bordas along the way and simply admiring the stunning colours of the autumn tints.

Along the way we find a memorial plaque commemorating the guides who helped allied airmen escape into Spain during the Second World War, just alongside the present day Grande Route trail over the Porte d’Aulan, lost among the peaks high above us.

The sky begins to turn threatening as we press on, checking watches and beginning to realise that we weren’t going to get far enough. As if to remind us we encountered herds of cattle heading down from the summer pastures.

The following week the autumn seemed to shut like a barn door – blizzards and freezing weather engulfed much of Northern Spain, and the Catalan Pyrenees were no exception. Looking at the scene from a walk near to Casa Rafela we couldn’t help but notice the dogs’ yearning to return to thier ‘native’ habitat!

This time we too took the Port de Bonaigüa road and passed through the ugly ski resort of Baqueira Beret, turning sharply uphill through the snow to the Pla de Beret. Here we nearly drove into the source of the river, neatly sealed off from passing tourists by a picket fence!

The river flows constantly direct from the font and all but the heaviest snow falls fail to settle there so we could see the course meander off across the almost dead flat pla.

Its curious to think that just a few metres away the neighbouring brook tumbles northwards to join the Garona, the French river Garonne, in the Val d’Aran far below.

After a bit of an anticlimax we pressed on beyond the ski station and tried to walk down towards the abandoned monastery of Mare de Diu de Montgarri which bears silent witness to the warm climate that existed here before the mini ice age of the XVII century – nowadays life here would be unimaginable in winter!

It was frustrating to see the settlement far below, but once again we had underestimated the distances in the huge landscape!

A Rushing River Ramble: the Riu Noguera Pallaresa

Dryads of mist rose and swirled among the trees and around the tent as the previous day’s torrential rain had left the ground sodden and the air decidedly chilly. But above the canopy we could see clear blue sky that hinted of a fine day to come. This Sunday was certainly not a morning for lounging around with the papers, so nothing else for it but to rouse The Pack and get down to our more or less eternal task of enlarging our list of ‘Favourite Walks’ that we leave for guests at Casa Rafela.

In its brief life the river Noguera Pallaresa passes through several distinct landscapes; high Pyrenean meadows, deep ravines like the Collegats (see ‘Gaudí on a Natural High? August 18th), or the spectacular Congost de Terradets. Terradets is in limestone country but here, on the stretch between Gerri de la Sal and Baro, there’s a swirling mishmash of rock types in the interstitial zone between the pre-Pyrenees and the granite massifs of the Pyrenees proper. Outcrops of red ironstone mingle with swathes of conglomerate and schist. The river, oblivious to this primordinal drama, meanders along the narrow valley, indolently slicing the harder rock into steep cliffs and depositing silt along quiet intermediate level stretches. The cliff sections hardly qualify as ravines, many are only fifty or so metres long with cascades of white water over the still eroding substrate. These stretches make the area ideal for rafting, specialised outward bound companies operate out of  the nearby township of Llavorsi. Several are ‘one sided’ as the river simply worked its way around obstacles, following a pre-determined path of softer rock. Here the forest sweeps majestically down to the riverside and at odd places huge oak trees have been undercut by the swiftly flowing waters and lie at crazy angles, their upper branches dipping into the water and making little dingles of shale and gravel in their wake.

Our route follows the trail from the roadside village of Baro to the hermitage of Mare de Deu d’Arbolo. Baro was an ancient fording place that grew to become a village from around the XIV C as the Medieval Warm Period gave way to the Little Ice Age of the XVIII C. This made life in the higher villages untenable in winter. In the upland valleys important settlements, like the Bronze Age village of Santa Creu de Llagunes, which is thought to have been inhabited from around 1500 BCE, were completely abandoned as early as the turn of the XIII C. We are able to cross the river at Baro by the new Pont d’Arcalís, which lies alongside the earlier suspension bridge there. If the name sounds familiar there’s a well-known folk music group who have adopted it as their moniker.

From here the track winds in and out of the forest, sometimes running alongside water meadows where small herds of the indigenous Pyrenean Brown Cow, the Vaca Bruna, idly chew the cud. The great asset of this walk is the way the path is endlessly varied, climbing gently up and down the hillside and giving alternate views over the surrounding mountain scenery, or peering down to the river almost vertically below. The presence of the road is swiftly forgotten as the noise of the rushing river drowns out any hint of passing traffic, and in any event there are two tunnels where the road disappears entirely, leaving the riverbank to the wildlife and occasional visitors like ourselves. These reaches of the river are known for otters (Lutra lutra), called Llúdria in Catalan, and the woods are a haunt of Capercaillie (Tetrao urogallus), or Gal Fer.

This sylvan reach of the river ends abruptly at the hermitage, which is perched on a shoulder of rock high above the river at a ‘real’ ravine. The hermitage is well preserved and mass is still held there during fiestas. There are numerous hermitages in this region, I can think of a dozen off the top of my head. Although many are completely in ruins and very difficult to access several are the focus of meetings called ‘aplecs’ where as well as doing the pious bit the locals very sensibly settle down to a good meal! Here are Arboló there’s a lovely terraced area with a built-in picnic table and we settle for elevenses under the watchful eye of a dozen or so griffon vultures circling above the cliffs on the opposite bank. Meanwhile a heron took off along the river far below, much too far for a photograph, even if I had kept the camera switched on!

Later, while Mrs Simon explored our El Carillet walk in the nearby Val Fosca, I was reflecting on the morning’s walk when another heron flew slowly down the adjacent riverbank, just under the canopy of trees. I’m no birder but I’ve always been lucky with herons; as a schoolboy I was on nodding acquaintance with one as I cycled to school of a morning (hard to imagine that journey now in this age of the ubiquitous ‘School Run’, a two-mile ride into the village to catch the bus there for the remaining six miles into ‘Town’!). I love the heron’s quiet dignity, a far cry from the raucous gregariousness of the griffons. That word ‘raucous’ put me in mind of the Catalan, ‘rauxa’, which is much more than just a word! Rauxa and seny represent the duality of the Catalan character. Many newcomers to Spain, and we were all newcomers once upon a time, come expecting all Spaniards to have the fey bravado so well summed up by Ian Gibson in the title of his book ‘Fire in the Blood’. So it comes as a shock to find a people notorious for their diligence, level headedness and, if you believe what many other Spaniards say about them, a rather slavish regard for money. These anglosajón qualities, or rather anglosaxó as it would be said here, are summed up by the word seny, which implies a canny, common sensical pragmatism (the Scottish word, nous, is probably the best translation) that is indeed highly valued hereabouts. But life would be very boring, anglosaxó indeed, if this summed up the entire Catalan mentality. Fortunately for them, and ‘tourists’ like ourselves, this is counterbalanced by rauxa, which has been feebly translated as ‘rashness’. But rauxa is far more than this. We’d been having a seny weekend, getting back in touch with the earth and the stars and recuperating from a manic summer, but more than that preparing ourselves for the rauxa ordeal to come. For back home in the city of Tarragona, in secret caverns, mysterious beasts are stirring, literally warming up for the mayhem soon to be unleashed upon its citizens!

Water, water everywhere: Festa de Sant Magi, Tarragona, August 2008

We walked into our nemesis quite casually. What had started out as a rendez-vous for a look at one of the better parades of Sant Magi, Tarragona’s Festa Major Petita, and a quiet drink in the Plaça de la Font began to take on the all too familiar fiesta fever as friends passed by, stopped, suggested the next place along the trail of the parade . . . Innocent fools that we were, we all thought we’d be safe. After all, this wasn’t Santa Tecla, the city’s Festa Major proper, who’s Chatreuse-charged, pyromaniac debauchery is not for the fainthearted. In contrast, Sant Magi is a staid affair. Both fiestas have their due portions of piety, or course, but their corresponding profane elements, a very necessary counterbalance, are profoundly different; Santa Tecla is above all else about fire, whereas Sant Magi is based around water.

Sant Magi*  himself was probably an III or IV Century hermit who lived in the Sierra de Brufaganya, his hermitage is hidden among cliffs overlooking a delightful secret valley near the headwaters of the Riu Gaià. After the dramatic ravines encountered downstream the landscape beyond the Sierra de Brufaganya opens out to reveal the rolling hill country that separates the Segre basin from the plains of Tarragona. This is wheat and sheep country where the horizons stretch away to the distant Pyrenees. There’s a curious similarity with the English Cotswolds, however, maybe it’s the honey coloured stone of the buildings and the drystone walls that stretch away in all directions. Or perhaps it’s the sense of ominous desolation; in winter this area is bleak, with unstoppable cold dry winds and the few villages have a closed, shut-away atmosphere about them. Life must have been hard indeed for the likes of Sant Magi. Nothing is known in detail about his exploits but it appears that from the early XII Century a cult grew up around his tomb, resulting in the establishment of a monastery or ‘Sanctuary’ alongside. Magi appeared in papal lists of saints in the XVI Century with over 300 miracles accredited to him. By the early XVIII Century the number of pilgrims was such that extra wells had to be dug to cope with the demand for healing waters and it was during alterations to the crypt in 1735 that his remains were found to be uncorrupted and have the ‘odour of sanctity’.

One curiosity from Sant Magi’s iconography is that he holds an Arab scimitar. There’s no possibility of him being involved in the reconquista if we accept that he lived at least two centuries before the Moorish invasion in 711CE. Perhaps his name was invoked as part of a blood-curdling battle cry by subsequent re-conquering heroes. Brufaganya is just about within the sphere of the Counts of Urgell, a rough lot who used to smite the Moors with a will, when they could tear themselves away from smiting each other, and when they smote their enemies stayed well and truly smitten!

The link with Tarragona dates from 1588, when the city’s bishop made a pilgrimage to mark the departure of the Spanish Armada. Perhaps he had family among the ships’ crews as Tarragona had a history of naval jaunts; Catalan King Jaume I, the Conqueror, launched his invasion fleet, said to consist of over 500 vessels, from this coast in 1229 and,

We set sail on Wednesday morning with the land wind behind us . . . and when the men of Tarragona and Cambrils saw the fleet getting under way from Salou, they too made sail, and it was a fine thing for both those on land and for us to watch, for all the sea seemed white with sails, so great was our fleet.**

Pilgrimages to the Sanctuary are also recorded from other towns and villages, and that of nearby Santa Coloma de Queralt is known to have been continuous from those days. A feature is that water from the spring at Brufaganya is carried back. This water is noted for curative powers, most notably for venereal diseases, so it’s always handy to lay a bottle or two. What is certainly true, as proved in actual tests, is that it tastes revolting.

Nowadays the route of the aigüa miraculosa, or miracle water, is followed by a caravan of horses and carts, which carry the water itself. The passage takes two days and its progress is eagerly reported in the local rag, the Diari de Tarragona. As one of Tarragona’s two Festes Majors, the celebrations start well before this, but when the cavalcade finally arrives in the early evening of August the 18th the party really begins. The caravan is joined the seguici popular, or entourage of bands, giants, caps grossos, colles of castellers . . . All in fact, but for the city’s Mythical Beasts, who are kept well and truly under lock and key until they ‘break out’ at Santa Tecla in late September and all hell lets loose! The seguici does several circuits of the mediaeval city centre. One notable feature is that the drovers and crew of the carts bring huge amounts of basil, so as to disperse the fleas, flies and other beasties that they might have picked up in the countryside, and to scent the city with its sweet smell.

There comes a moment in all fiestas when, sometimes after a long gestation as the fiesta really gets in to the swing, one finally just let’s go; the mind losses all sense of being sensible and earnest and all one’s other anglosajon virtues. It happened to our little party when we unwittingly entered the Plaça del Rei, where huge set pieces of carts, barrels and watermelons (another ‘icon’ of the Fiesta, on the first big night, literally called La Sindriada, crowds queue up to buy slices of deliciously refreshing watermelon for a token 5 cents to a musical accompaniment – it’s all completely silly!). We’d passed this way in previous years and seen the illuminated fountains of water gushing out of the sets, but we had no idea of what was to happen next; a deluge of 35,000 litres of water suddenly soaked us to the skin. There was nothing for it but to go completely crazy and what followed is a blur of recollections; walking through the city, still soaked, passing amongst all the ‘respectable’ folk in their big-night-out night finery going to or coming from the cities packed restaurants, straying into a late night bar and freezing as the powerful air conditioning chilled our damp clothes, falling on a gut busting Full English Breakfast next day with lashings of brown sauce, red sauce, Worcestershire sauce . . . getting stuck among the Xiquets de Tarragona achieving a new personal best tres de nou (nine ‘storeys’ of three persons each, a very fine ‘castle’ indeed!), running into our ‘gang’ during the lethal l’ora del vermut, when the only hangover cure on offer is the proverbial hair-of-the-dog . . .

Postscript: we were flattered reading the report of the fiesta that the Plaça del Rei was filled with jóvenes, as none of our party will see fifty again, and some not even sixty, or maybe even seventy! Having got our guests well and truly slaughtered at Sant Magi I was somewhat dubious about accepting an invitation for a day’s sailing, a first time for me, on their retirement home, the twenty-two ton ketch Samothrace***. But I needn’t have worried, having fixed the date the fickle weather did its worst and laid on a dead calm. But at least I could learn the ropes in peace and the subtleties of keeping her head to the wind, achieving a personal best of 2.4 knots – no match for the automatic pilot’s effortless 2.8!

* With thanks to Dr Graham Jones of Leicester University

** From Jaume’s autobiography, El Llibre dels Feits, or Book of Deeds, translated in Robert Hughes’ Barcelona (1992)

*** Photo courtesy of Dave Gayler

Gaudí on a Natural High? The Argenteria waterfall, Congost de Collegats, Lleida

It’s not been so very long ago that a trip to the upper Noguera Pallaresa valley, beyond the town of La Pobla de Segur, was quite an adventure. The conditions of the roads were ‘as built’ and with numerous patches and repairs. Anyone with experience of pre-EU Spanish roads will know what that means, patches on patches on patches! Furthermore, the road itself was ‘engineered’ sometime between 1886, when the road arrived at La Pobla, and 1924, when the road over the Port de Bonaigua and into the Val d’Aran was opened, so the curves were, shall we say, interesting! Almost the first obstacle one encountered was the Congost de Collegats ravine, where the road twists and turns for what seems like miles, ducking down to the river or lurching along precipitous cliff faces, where the telephone lines were fixed directly onto the rock wall and a dementedly driven Pegaso truck seemed to lurk around every blind corner. Throughout years of short holiday trips the pretty village of Gerri de la Sal seemed a good enough goal to aim for, as indeed it still is. But, even more, the ravine itself contains a hidden treasure. It’s ironic that since the new road was blasted through the ravine during the early 1990′s (almost all of it through long tunnels thanks to the sterling efforts of environmentalists reclassifying the ravine as a protected area), and the original road is now an official footpath, one of the region’s few ‘tourist attractions’, which even rates ** ‘worth a detour’ in the Michelin Guide, has been eclipsed. Notwithstanding a rather forlorn looking car park at the end of the north tunnel and one of the ubiquitous hideous brown heritage signs pointing to it, the fact is the sub-species Homo sapiens michelinnus won’t get out of their cars and walk a few hundred yards for anything that isn’t spoon fed to them – poor fools!

Needless to say, having a genuine, Michelin starred attraction in their midst has led certain less scrupulous locals, with an eye for the main chance perhaps, to be rather hyperbolic. But the urban myth surrounding the Argenteria waterfall has a touch of genius. Not only does the idea that Gaudí’s design for the Nativity Façade of the famous Sagrada Familia temple in Barcelona was inspired by it has a grain of credibility but also, as Gaudí did indeed travel around Catalonia during his early years as a participator in the contemporary trend for Excursionisme, it is at least theoretically possible that it’s true!

It is axiomatic that Gaudí incorporated themes and elements of the natural world into his work and he is known to have been influenced by such luminaries as John Ruskin and William Morris. Moreover his work bursts with representations of nature, especially in the Nativity Façade , so why not this example? (courtesy of NB I don’t like copying images so crave your indulgence by opening the complementary images in a new tab) The immediate evidence is in the physical impression of similarity a visit to both sites gives. Sadly this doesn’t come across at all well in the photographs but it’s to do with the scale and the sense of power that both structures share. This is heightened by the means of arriving at both sites; as many readers will know the S.F. hits you right between the eyes the first time you come across in, lurking as it does behind the corner of a perfectly ordinary street, or nowadays as you emerge from the glass lift from the new metro station there. Similarly, the Argenteria seems to pop out of the rest of the cliff face only as one passes it close by; otherwise it is swallowed up within the grandeur of the whole scene.

Then there is the devil in the detail. Compare this element in the Façade (with thanks to Barcelona Photoblog) to these views of the Argenteria: Here in the globular looking masonry that frames scenes from the Nativity has the look of melted candles, giving an impression in stone of fluidity. These ‘arches’ of ‘melted rock repeat throughout the whole Façade. This conical form is repeated in the Argenteria; although this is a result of water erosion rather than an igneous process, the conical shape has a vivid similarity. This is reinforced with repetition up and across the rock face as it does in the Façade. Furthermore, little ‘vignettes’ of vegetation, nesting birds, etc. under the frames formed by the rock resemble the various Nativity scenes in the Façade.

Another example is in the way strange reptilian beasts leer down from on high on the Façade, seeming to emerge from the molten rock as if out of the primordial slime itself! Similarly, strange glowering forms left by calcium deposit dotted around the edges of the Argeneria leave an equally eerie impression. In fact the Argenteria gives a strong feeling of the power of elemental forces. Perhaps the most striking element is the contorted strata of the exposed face of sedimentary rock right alongside. To get an idea of scale, note the fully-grown trees dotted around the structure. That such huge sections of solid rock are twisted and torn like so many sheets of paper is truly awe inspiring. Perhaps it is beyond the scope of this blog (it’s certainly beyond my scope!) to posit that Gaudí drew parallels between the Nativity story and the Creation. This portrayal of the latter in terms of the emergence of animals and plants from a morass has so much resonance with the imagery of modern ideas of the origin of life on earth that it is certainly too tempting to suggest an influence there; that would be a very big leap indeed! Apart from anything else the timeframe is all wrong; Darwin talked about the Origins of Species not the origins of life itself.

Back to the Urban Myth idea, a quick Google search reveals the nature of the beast. Here’s an entry by an anonymous contributor to the MisPueblos, a sponsored blog about villages in Spain (NB. errors in translation are all mine):

me dijo un historiador que aquí venía Gaudí en bicicleta para inspirarse y coger croquis de de los encantos de la roca para realizar la Sagrada Familia y su Arte.”
” I’m told by a historian that Gaudí came here by bicycle to take sketches of the charms of the rocks and to be inspired for the Sagrada Familia and his Art.”

A more inclusive entry on a commercial travel site,, includes the poet Jacint Verdaguer  (1845 – 1902), Catalonia’s emblematic dead poet, who devotes a few lines to the Argenteria in his epic poem Canigó of 1885:

Així trobem: l’estret de Collegats amb l’Argenteria, que fou font d’inspiració per a Gaudí i Mossèn Cinto Verdaguer . . .
“Here we find: the Collegats ravine with the Argenteria, which was a source of inspiration for Gaudí and Friar Cinto Verdaguer . . .”

A personal report comes from a pair of tourists, Laura and Jordi, writing in Gallician and Mallorcan respectively, on their voyage along the Pyrenees:

Paga la pena aparcar el cotxe al congost i fer una excursioneta fins a l’Argenteria, una formació rocosa que, segons diuen, va inspirar a Gaudí a l’hora de construir la Sagrada Família.”
“It’s worthwhile to park the car and take a short walk to the Argenteria, a rocky formation which, so they say, inspired Gaudí’s idea for the Sagrada Familia.”

Now the Lleida tourist board description:

“. . . la Argenteria, lugar en que dicen se inspir Antoni Gaudí para crear la fachada del edificio de la Pedrera.”
“. . .the Agenteria, the place which is said to have inspired Gaudí to create the façade of the La Pedrera building.”

Note the subtle change to the La Pedrera building in Passeig de Gracia. This has led to a change of direction recently. Here’s a description in English from, which looks like an NGO but is in fact a “tourism interactive .com LTD business” – and very good of them to point this out in miniscule writing!

“The Catalan intelligentsia have been coming to admire the scenery here for well over a century, and the portion of the canyon labelled L’Argenteria, with its sculpted, papier-mâche-like rockface streaked with rivulets, supposedly inspired Antoni Gaudi’s La Pedrera apartment building in Barcelona.”

I can’t quite see the similarity to La Pedrera, but I’ll take their word for it – as far as I take anyone’s! There are altogether too many passive references that fail to identify the source for my liking; and that, “supposedly”, in the final description certainly looks suspicious! I’ve no doubt at all that all of these remarks have been made in good faith, however, I heard the myth back in the 1980′s long before people started writing blogs or building tourist websites, but maybe it’s now time to seek some clarification. I’ll be visiting Barcelona in September to have another look at the subjects in question. Meanwhile, at least the Verdaguer poem is carved in stone on a monument at the site. As for Gaudí, well it’s August, we’re in Spain and my only source of an actual definitive life of Gaudí is in the library, which is closed for the duration. So see this blog in a few weeks’ time for The Truth!

KESSE 08 International Music Festival: Tarragona

Readers of my last blog, Monument Valley (July 24, 2008), will no doubt have questioned my sanity at leaving such a wonderful place just to go back to the big city. Notwithstanding the fact that the following day was Monday with all that that entails, they wouldn’t be wrong to do so. But I had other motives, both general and specific, and it’s only now in retrospect that I see that I was marking a transition from a landscape of natural monuments to those of a built environment. I won’t attempt to emulate Lucy’s wonderful blogs and images on urban wildlife; in any event she literally pipped me to the post! Now that the swifts have gone, vanishing as suddenly and mysteriously as they appeared a month or so ago, I’ll have to leave my description of their frantic ‘race’ around Tarragona’s Roman Circus until next year. But to underline a point implicit in these posts; the urban environment is just as ‘natural’ as out in the countryside, but that the impact of mankind is so much more obvious. Furthermore, we, that is, those of us who have an interest in nature and wildlife, de facto readers of Iberianature, sometimes tend to regard towns and especially cities in a negative light, holding the illusory belief that without them nature would revert or maintain itself in a ‘pristine’ state. This is an illusion because the rural environment is so profoundly influenced by human activity that you’d have to go a very long way, certainly away from anywhere on the Iberian Peninsular, to find a completely, natural, i.e. pristine, environment. Indeed, now that we have a scientific onsensus on humanity’s influence on climate change there is nowhere on this planet that isn’t subject to this impact. And even our closest celestial neighbours, the Moon and Mars, now support restos humanos! Be that as it may I just happen to love both the rural and the urban environment, or rather those that conform to my tastes, and that Sunday evening I had a particular wish to observe and indeed participate in, the arcane behaviour of its dominant indigenous species, Homo sapiens!

KESSE, Tarragona’s annual world music festival is small beer by comparison to those of other cities, but the availability of superb open-air venues, mainly based on the medieval plaças, Roman remains like the amphitheatre or the purpose-built Auditori Camp de Mart, a renowned modern ‘tent’ design which has the towering Roman walls as a backdrop, make it something really special. Moreover, its timing, at the end of July, means that it really belongs to the citizens; much of the student population has gone away for the summer recess but the residents don’t start their holidays until August, when the city more or less dies for four weeks or so. KESSE draws some big attractions like Calima (above, more on them later) but the show that drew me back early from my weekend break was the Orquestra Àrab de Barcelona. I’m fascinated by Arabic culture and history, and highly conscious of my lack of knowledge of either, but what made the Orquestra most interesting to me was that it is firmly rooted in Catalonia, which has a very large Arabic population, including many of my friends and neighbours. Although their music is based on traditional Arab sources, specifically from Moroccan and Andalucian cultures and the Sufi traditions, I was sceptical of the description of their last album, Báraka, as being influenced by world music, jazz and Mediterranean music. One of the great things about the trend for World Music is its ability to transcend cultural and political frontiers, facilitating cross-cultural awareness and understanding, and this is a wonderful end in itself, of course. But I can have a bit too much of World Fusion Music, sometimes feeling that the music is reduced to its lowest common denominators, just in order to get a recognisable theme in there. I’m very pleased to say, however, that the OAB has not fallen into this trap, their music only has slight overtones, hardly more than a salpica, of these influences and sticks very clearly to its ‘base’, and very beautiful it is too!

What struck me more, however, was the way that the band represented itself very clearly as being Catalan, the leader, Mohamed Soulimane from Chefchaouen (dressed in white), spoke to the audience in fluent Catalan, even making a few ‘in jokes’. Furthermore, two of the musicians are Catalans; you could hardly find more Catalan names than Jordi (George) Gaig and Joan (John) Rectoret if you tried! Underlying the band’s ‘agenda’ is that Barcelona has absorbed Arabic culture to the extent that it now faces back out into the world as part of the panoply of Barcelona’s and by extension Catalonia’s and perhaps Spain’s, cultural kaleidoscope.

Calima, in contrast, could hardly be more different. The band was founded by Juanlu, ‘El Cani’, bassist from Ojos de Brujo, who brought Flamenco to the world stage thanks both to importing electric instruments and influences from the orient in the form of the related Bhangra sound from the Punjab. But Calima’s objective still is Flamenco, Flamenco and more Flamenco. So here the project is reversed; Spain’s most well known traditional music is drawing to it musicians from all around the world, in this case Argentina, Venezuela, Sweden and the United States, but keeping its ‘purity’; the ‘World’ influence is really synonymous with being contemporary in our globalised age. It’s curious to note how Calima’s line up, including the foreign musicians, is given very much in the Spanish manner, using nicknames only rather than the musicians’ full names, strengthening this cultural identification. In contrast the OAB, while identifying itself as being contemporary Catalan, also maintain their racial and cultural origins very clearly.

It strikes me that the cultural diversity and dynamism that is such a feature of contemporary Spain has, or will have, a vast importance for the broader environment. Spain has suffered, indeed is suffering, many environmental threats that originate, at least in part, in influences that are now obsolete; the rush for development at no matter what environmental cost dates from Spain’s need to develop quickly, both to get up to speed with its European partners after accession to the EU in 1986, and to escape the stagnation of  the Franco years; or the influence of ‘Big Government’ that still lingers on from those years of despotism and is evidenced in so many current environmental controversies like the corruption of city councils from Malaga to Mallorca. Many foreign residents of Spain’s rural regions have, like me, been exasperated by a common attitude dubbed, ‘como siempre’, meaning it is as it always was, that is a barrier to changing attitudes about the importance, and the sensitivity, of the environment. But is in the furnace of youthful urban life that new ideas and beliefs will be forged, not least because they attract so many of Spain’s rural youth.

After the party was over I got chatting to the soundman from a local band, Tumbuktu (residents of Tarragona but Argentine in fact) that was also part of KESSE. It just so happens that I too used to be in the sounds business, last working at that in 1979, the year of my new acquaintance’s birth! Apart from the technology it seems that nothing much has changed; the old rock’n’roll is still a crazy business and above all jobs in it, although well paid, are very short-lived (especially if you want a long life!). I was impressed with the clarity and sense of purpose my new friend stated his plans for the next ten years or so: reach the top of his profession in terms of technical skills and then dip out of the ‘rat race’ and move into the country, his living there supplemented by short seasonal work away on tour. It’s people like him who are our hope for the future.

Postscript: as an afterthought I simply couldn’t let the opportunity pass to feature what was for me the musical highlight of the week: Habib Kointé (guitar) & Bamada, from Mali, were quite simply a marvel!

Monument Valley: the Vall de Serradell in the Catalan Pyrenees

When it came the storm was as sudden as it was unexpected and the tent was lit up like daylight as lightening flashed around the night sky, surreal in the absence of its accompanying thunder, which was drowned out by the white noise of a series of rushing rapids just outside the ‘door’. As the rain cascaded down the temperature dropped sharply and Lucky, who had briefly stirred at the onset of the deluge, curled herself into an even tighter ball and adopted the classic husky blizzard position; nose tucked firmly up her bum. I did a quick mental inventory of the scene outside, nothing there that a bit of rain would hurt, but the damp had put a stop to any idea of striking camp and getting away early. I badly needed a lie-in, but Lucky needed a long walk more. I resolved to return to Monument Valley.

It sounds like overstating the obvious but one of the lovely things about the Pyrenees is, well, there are so much of them! After spending over twenty years exploring my particular area in the Catalan province of Lleida I still get the occasional surprise, or shock even. Circumstance had brought Lucky, my lupine Husky/German Shepherd cross, and I camping alone for three days. The only full day was to be occupied with business, sadly, but the evening we arrived and made camp I’d planned to re-visit the Val Fosca, meaning ‘The Dark Valley’ in Catalan, to update my image bank of the region. But as I approached the entrance to the valley, at the Congost de Erinya, I saw that ominous clouds were already forming over the high peaks beyond, so on a whim I turned off into the valley of the Riu de Serradell. I hadn’t been there for well over twenty years, when we’d been disappointed by a failed house purchase, so maybe that explains why I’d never been back. This time my eyes were for the valley, not for bricks and mortar, and I was amazed as I approached the village and the landscape opened out in front of me. Nothing for it but to boot up and take an hour’s exploration – much to Lucky’s delight!

What is it that makes a landscape so stunning? Certainly not sheer size as in this case the valley is dwarfed by the higher ranges just to the north and the two local big sierras, Boumort and Montsec. Walking the mile or so (a couple of kilometres at most) of farm track towards the Obac de Serradell, the last flat, cultivated space at the head of the valley, it struck me that here quite the opposite was the case; even though the landscape is big, even by Spanish standards, it is small enough to be constantly changing as I walked up the valley, with new vistas and facets emerging with every turn. Plus there is a lovely juxtaposition between the bare cliffs and the wooded slopes that reach up to them from the valley floor. Meanwhile, the domesticity of the immediate surroundings, with their rolling meadows and quaint bordes, or field barns, contrasted with the primordial appearance of the dense forest and the heavily eroded slopes. It was on this short stroll that I decided that some day I’d explore a ‘proper’ walk and came up with the name for it; Monument Valley. Sooner than expected, then, we were back. Still ill prepared, no map, no details, but with a cool morning ahead and plenty of willpower to thoroughly enjoy the few hours that we had left of the weekend.

Driving up towards Serradell the six kilometres of sinuous lane snake among tiny meadows and glades of oak and ash trees. The valley has a strange combination of agricultures. I usually associate olive groves with wheat fields and vineyards, and with the rearing of sheep and goats. But here the olives were interspersed with grass cultivation; it was haymaking time, and the tiny fields with the cut hay waiting for the baler reminded me of Cantabria rather than Catalonia. Some meadows had electric fences installed (useless for goats!), and sure enough, around the next bend there were dun cows with their offspring meditatively chewing the cud – much to Lucky’s amazement, she’d hardly ever seen a cow before, let alone a calf. Suddenly, the olive trees disappeared, and pine trees began to predominate the view. This is the Bosc de Serradell, and I began to gaze in wonder as the true nature and extent of the valley began to unfold. As the lane passes along the northern flank of the east-west running valley, much of the ‘view’ is over pine forests, which turn out to be plantation dating from the nineteen-fifties, but important stands of indigenous European box (Buxus sempervirens) and beach (Fagus sylvatica) trees, whose origins date from the cooler quaternary epoch, continue to thrive among the more sheltered slopes.

Serradell itself is tiny, with about thirty-odd houses all clinging around a hump of mountainside below glowering cliffs. The rocks hereabouts are all conglomerate dating from the Oligocene period. These formations crop up all over Catalonia and the best-known example is probably the Montsant range in Tarragona. Here though, and in the nearby Collegats ravine, the rocks have a very distinct pink hue and from a distance one could confuse them for sandstone; especially as the soft rock is subject to wind erosion giving the cliffs a voluptuous curving form. Furthermore, rainwater erosion, which works away wearing down exposed faces down the sides of the cliffs leave huge columns standing apart where the tip has been capped by large boulders. These sometimes have a cathedral like magnitude. There are caves visible which break the surface up into lateral lines and deep vertical scars of watercourse carve the cliffs into lobes. A sign in the village points to a walk to the Font d’Aigüafresca, the Cold Water Spring, and it’s true; spring water from this rock is extra cold! Serradell is a pretty village that clambers up the hillside with covered alleyways more typical in style to those of the high-Pyrenees. Several of the houses were being restored and those that were finished had a tendency to ‘tweeness’ that spoke of serious money. As we left the village and walked further into the valley isolated bordes, which used to be used as barns and stabling for the livestock, were also being done up, and the prevalence of Swiss registered cars confirmed the impression.

One the first excursion I’d seen a signpost for the Cova de Cuberes. I had a vague recollection of remains of prehistoric human occupation in the valley and decided to make this the aim of my walk, but as the lane petered out at the very last borda there was no sign of any cave (here is the information that I was missing, thanks to the excellent Palau Robert Institute). Instead a marked forest trail began, with the obvious intention of heading up and over the Coll de Serradell (1,550m approx.), which was clearly visible although at a somewhat frightening angle of ascent! Nothing for it but to press on into the dank forest so in we went. The trail is marked with the standard red and white stripes and but for them I would have a) given up and/or b) got hopelessly lost! Deep and dank the forest certainly was and I was glad of Lucky’s company on many occasions. She is indeed lupine in her habits and manner as having been born and raised in the Pyrenees she’s used to having free rein in the open woodland around our house in the nearby Conca de Tremp, but here in the forest it’s definitely no-go. I’m used to not seeing much of the fauna while out and about with the dogs but with Lucky’s unerring sense of smell and acute hearing causing her to pause almost every few yards one has a great sense of their presence. Squirrels and martens are a frequent sighting though, as Lucky adopts the pointer position towards some tree or other. Meanwhile walking alone gives time to ponder on one’s vulnerability and the fragility of life in general – not a good time to remember that no-one in the world knows where you are – I’d tried the mobile phone coverage earlier on – no chance! So I hung onto the dog for more than just physical support as the path began a steep zigzag ascent of around three hundred metres. Near the top, as we passed out of the now sweltering forest onto a nasty traverse across a section of cliff face, Lucky froze once again, looking back across the deep ravine that we had just climbed. She was fixed on the seemingly bare rock face opposite and as I caught my breath I could hear the tip tapping of hooves on hard rock. Try as I may I could see nothing, however, despite being only about fifty metres away across the yawning divide. I guessed they were Izards (Rupicapra pyrenaica pyrenaica) as these are the most common hoofed mammal species hereabouts. They may well have been in the trees that crept up to the foot of the rocks but I felt frustrated all the same; there was a strange intimacy between us, so alone all the way up here. Who knows how long it was, or would be, since any other human had been here?

The climb turned out to be a chimera, reaching one peak just gave me a better view of the subsequent section (in fact I’d only climbed about a hundred and fifty metres from the bottom of the cliff, plus about the same again from the village!), and I had to face the facts that I was ill prepared, it was now getting seriously hot and that I had to be back home in the city that same afternoon. So after a breather we set off back. As we left the shoulder of rock and re-entered the forest we heard a fox give a valedictory yelp, reclaiming his own, perhaps. The steep path turned out to be almost as hard going down as it was up; the curse of the husky owner being that they pull with equal force in both directions and never seem to tire! So I was glad to emerge into the strengthenig sunlight and regain the farm track on the valley floor. It gave me plenty of time to ponder our relation with nature in its more raw aspects. Ahead of me lay the trappings of civilisation; the car, good music, good food and more, none of which I would readily do without, but for the immediate future what we both wanted was to get down to the icy cold waters of Lake Sant Antoni!